The Plot

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Although Lost Horizon won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in England, it became a popular success only following the acclaim for James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1933). Frank Capra’s classic 1937 film version of Lost Horizon brought Hilton’s story to worldwide attention, and Shangri-La, the fictional Himalayan mountain lamasery where human beings aged slowly and sought wisdom, became a general term for an ideal place to live. During the war-torn decades of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Hilton’s vision expressed a longing for a quieter and more peaceful existence.

Lost Horizon begins as a standard adventure story. After a preliminary introduction of the hero, Hugh “Glory” Conway, and an explanation of his presence in Asia, the narrative opens with an account of how Conway and three other European travelers escape by plane from a violent revolution in the Asian city of Baskul. That revolution symbolizes the instability of the modern world. As their escape flight proceeds, the pilot changes course and flies ever deeper into the Himalayas. Conway and his companions realize that they have been kidnapped, but they are powerless. The plane crashes and the pilot is killed, stranding the party. Before he dies, however, the pilot mentions a Tibetan lamasery called Shangri-La.

As the European travelers plan their next move, they see figures coming toward them. Their rescuers are from Shangri-La, and the leader, a monk named Chang, takes them to the lamasery. Conway is fascinated with life in Shangri-La and perceives a spiritual peace about the place. One of his companions, a young British official named Charles Mallison, is eager to return to the outside world and regards Shangri-La with growing suspicion.

After a brief time at the lamasery, Conway is summoned to see the High Lama, Father Perrault, who tells him the history of Shangri-La going back several centuries. As he listens to the Lama’s tale, Conway realizes that the man is several hundred years old and has personally experienced the events he is describing. During the rest of his conversation with Perrault, Conway learns that he and his fellow travelers will be staying in Shangri-La forever. Their kidnapping had been arranged to bring new people to the lamasery to continue the work of this spiritual and intellectual refuge. Perrault expects a world war to engulf the planet in a short time, and he plans to keep Shangri-La isolated until the storm of violence and destruction has passed. The inhabitants of the lamasery will live their extended lives preserving the best that humanity has achieved. In a subsequent talk with the High Lama, Conway discovers that the ancient leader is going to die soon and that he has been selected as Perrault’s successor. At the end of their moving conversation, Perrault dies.

Before Conway can fulfill his destiny, the impetuous young Mallison tells him that he plans to leave Shangri-La with a Chinese woman from the lamasery. Conway reveals the secret of Shangri-La to Mallison and warns him that the woman, who seems to be a young girl, is much older than Mallison believes. In the course of the heated encounter, Conway’s faith in Shangri-La wavers, and he decides “to flee from wisdom and be a hero.” He departs from the lamasery with Mallison and his female companion.

An epilogue completes the tale. After many adventures, Conway is somewhere in Asia, heading back to where Shangri-La rests in the enchanted valley of the Mountains of the Blue Moon. The book ends with the reader unsure whether Conway will find the lamasery again.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

Lost Horizon is written in the form of a third-person narrative...

(This entire section contains 579 words.)

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given to the ostensible author by a novelist named Rutherford and concerns Hugh Conway, a mutual acquaintance. Conway and three other Westerners had been passengers on a plane hijacked from an Indian city during a revolution. The plane was never recovered, but Rutherford found Conway a year later suffering from amnesia in a Chinese hospital. The strange story that Conway related after he regained his memory is the body ofLost Horizon.

The four Westerners—Conway, Charles Mallinson, Roberta Brinklow, and Henry Barnard—were powerless to act even when they realized that their plane was being hijacked. Their pilot died after the plane crashed on a ridge high in the Himalayas, and they were saved only because a party of hillmen found them and escorted them to a lamasery named Shangri-La.

The lamasery proved to be comfortable, civilized, but remote. Chang, the leader of the rescue party, assured them that porters who could return them to the outside world would be arriving in a month or two, and that until then they were to be guests of the lamasery. The only other person whom they encountered directly was a young Chinese woman named Lo-Tsen, who entertained them on the piano.

The Westerners reacted differently to their stay. For reasons of their own, Brinklow and Barnard decided to remain. Mallinson himself was anxious to leave, but in the meantime Conway had learned that they were not in Shangri-La by accident. Soon afterward, he was admitted to an audience with the lamasery’s High Lama. The aged man told Conway the story of Father Perrault, a friar who had made his way to Shangri-La in the early eighteenth century and who miraculously lived on and on. It was only toward the end of this account that Conway realized that the High Lama himself was Perrault.

In this and subsequent conversations, the High Lama described the lamasery’s rediscovery over the centuries by various travelers. Outsiders aged slowly in Shangri-La’s air, it seemed, but aged rapidly if they left. Recently, the trickle of travelers had ceased as a result of war and revolution, and so the High Lama had authorized the forced recruitment of new individuals. He shared his vision of a sanctuary that would preserve civilization from the destruction he foresaw for the outside world, and he finally suggested that Conway was destined to be his successor. With this revelation, he died.

At the same time, Mallinson learned that the porters whom Chang had mentioned had reached a point several miles away but would set off again shortly. Mallinson had convinced Lo-Tsen, with whom he had fallen in love, to accompany him. Conway tried to explain that Lo-Tsen was actually an old woman, that her age would reassert itself if she left the valley, but in vain. Torn between remaining in Shangri-La and helping Mallinson, Conway finally decided that his greater loyalty was toward his friend.

In an epilogue, the author described a later meeting with Rutherford, who had tried to track Conway after he had disappeared on another journey. Rutherford did not find Conway—or Shangri-La, where he guessed Conway was headed—but offered several bits of evidence that the story might be true. The most tantalizing came from the doctor who had treated Conway. Rutherford learned that the Englishman had been accompanied by an extraordinarily old Chinese woman who had died shortly after conducting him to safety.

Places Discussed

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Shangri-La. Lamasery in the Karakoram mountains of Tibet, situated on the lower slopes of a peak called Karakal (“Blue Moon”), whose elevation of 28,000 feet makes it nearly the equal of Mount Everest. The lamasery consists of a group of blue-roofed pavilions, delicately poised on the mountainside above a fertile valley. The lamasery is rich in decorative Chinoiserie but it also has an excellent library. Although it is on the site of a much older Buddhist lamasery, its present construction dates from 1734, when Father Perrault—then a Capuchin friar—took up residence prior to developing his own syncretic amalgam of Eastern and Western religious ideas. It is, therefore, a hybrid erection, grafting modern Christian ideals onto a Buddhist base, looking up all the while at an unscalable peak.

Shangri-La reminds Conway, just a little, of Oxford University. Having been deeply disillusioned and spiritually wounded by World War I and its aftermath, Conway naturally looks back to his college days with deep nostalgia. Common parlance calls Oxford a “city of dreaming spires” and a collage of “ivory towers,” and Shangri-La’s architecture and elevation are presented in similar terms. Its loftiness is, however, associated with a particular kind of atmosphere: clean, refined, and exceedingly beneficial to the health. The text carefully points out that “la” is the Tibetan word for a mountain pass, emphasizing that the lamasery is also a metaphorical gateway, offering a passage to a way of being that is far superior to anything available in the modern, civilized world.

The valley below the lamasery is a peaceful utopia whose citizens are happy to submit to the benevolent dictatorship of the lamas. Laws are unnecessary to ensure order because the valley’s inhabitants are so carefully schooled in courtesy that disputes never become violent. All this is part of a legacy, an estate, in both senses of the word, which Perrault now desires to leave to a suitable heir. If Conway were an aristocrat he would probably have an estate awaiting him at home, but he is not, and his sense of duty is oriented toward the grandiose political institutions and ambitions of the British Empire rather than to the stewardship of a tract of land. It is not until he has forsaken his estate that he realizes its true value.


Baskul. Remote outpost of the British Empire on the northwest frontier of the Indian subcontinent, to the northeast of Peshawur (Peshawar). Baskul represents the furthest edge of the decaying empire, beset by rebellious confusion. To its south lies the most troubled region, while the untracked wilderness of the Himalayas lies to the north. It is an obvious backwater, beyond the control or influence of any diplomatic presence.


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Crawford, John W. “The Utopian Dream: Alive and Well.” Cuyahoga Review, Spring/Summer, 1984, 27-33. Compares Lost Horizon and Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, citing them as two rare examples of utopias appearing in a century of dystopias.

Crawford, John W. “Utopian Eden of Lost Horizon.” Extrapolation 22 (Summer, 1981): 186-190. Places Lost Horizon in the utopian tradition of such writers as John Milton, Samuel Johnson, and H. G. Wells, and likens its appeal to that enjoyed by such popular authors as Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard.

Heck, Francis S. “The Domain as a Symbol of a Paradise Lost: Lost Horizon and Brideshead Revisited.” The Nassau Review: The Journal of Nassau Community College Devoted to Arts, Letters, and Sciences 4, no. 3 (1982): 24-29. Discusses significant parallels between Lost Horizon and Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. Heck and Crawford (above) are notable for comparing Hilton to other, more critically accepted writers.

“Utopia in Tibet.” Review of Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1933, 8-9. One of the first U.S. reviews of Lost Horizon. The anonymous writer finds the characters and their problems too unrealized to make an impression, but calls the picture of the lamasery in Shangri-La memorable.

Whissen, Thomas R. Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. The chapter on Lost Horizon points out that Shangri-La has become part of our vocabulary and treats its popularity in terms of the myths it utilizes. The best single investigation of the book’s perennial appeal.


Critical Essays